If the government's broken, dump it: votes of a disposable society
Whether Gerry Harvey likes it or not, we live in a society that runs on the back of consumer power.
The internet and trade liberalisation have granted Australian consumers access to inexpensive and plentiful goods and services.
As a result, most of the objects we purchase in day-to-day life are relatively cheap and easy to obtain, and hence they are also easy to replace. Our parents like to remind us that in their day, a television was terribly expensive and if it broke, it was repaired. For today's consumers, if the TV breaks it's relatively cheap to throw it out and buy a new one.
As Australians are becoming accustomed to their power as consumers, they are tending to apply aspects of consumer behaviour to other areas. Politics is one such area.
Today, Australians are consumer-voters living in a disposable society. And there appears to be a greater willingness on behalf of the electorate to dispose of governments that aren't conforming to expectations.
Take the 2010 federal election as an example. Conventional wisdom is that first-term governments tend to get a bit of a free pass. In fact, the last government to be voted out in its first term was the Scullin government in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. Our parents and the generation before them were hoarders, stubbornly holding on to the old broken television they'd worked so hard to buy. As voters they were invested in their first-term governments, persisting in the belief that the government might come good.
Despite the conventional wisdom about first-term governments, the Gillard-Rudd Government had a near-death experience. Voters judged the Rudd-Gillard Government's infighting and non-performance during Rudd's leadership harshly.
A similar situation occurred in Victoria later that year. The Brumby government, though hampered by a slight 'it's time' factor, was expected to hold on for another term, but Victorian voters indicated their exasperation with Victorian Labor's inability to deliver infrastructure projects, such as the desalination plant and the myki rollout, on time and on budget.
There is an element of frustration with a lack of competent service delivery behind the ALP's losses in New South Wales last year, and Queensland last weekend. The former Labor governments had been in place a long time, and thus were likely to suffer from a sort of natural attrition, but the overwhelming narrative in these contests was built around questions of competency, and failure to deliver observable, tangible outcomes to voters.
Somewhat distressingly though, Australian politicians don't appear to have noticed that competency and performance are big issues for an electorate that sees governments as just another consumer good that can be replaced at will.
In Queensland, the ALP is currently debating its next move. Some senior figures suggest that in order to make Labor electorally palatable again, they should be allowing party members to elect the ALP leader. Others suggest that a return to 'Labor values' is needed. Both of these approaches miss the point. Introspective navel-gazing about the culture and character of the Queensland ALP has its place, but more than anything else, what voters want from their governments is competency.
As Queensland LNP campaign director James McGrath and Liberal Party strategist Mark Textor have stated, the Bligh government's problems centred around the acute mismanagement of health policy, of water policy and so on. Until the Queensland ALP have addressed the public's perception of them as incompetent, it won't matter who selects the ALP leader, because they won't be Queensland premier any time soon.
The failure to recognise the importance of competency for a new breed of consumer-voters is not confined to the Queensland ALP. Having been elected against the odds in 2010, the Baillieu government is now suffering a decline in its popularity and poll numbers, as Victorian voters scratch their heads in an attempt to figure out exactly what the Government is doing, given that it isn't delivering any political or legislative reform or building any new infrastructure. The O'Farrell Government, which is currently experiencing high levels of support, needs to be careful that it does not fall into the same policy inertia.
And the Gillard Government, despite the passage of key pieces of its legislative agenda, such as the MRRT and the carbon tax, continues to be unpopular with voters as it lurches from one mismanaged implementation to the next, while its senior figures continue to bicker amongst themselves. It is still perceived as an incompetent government, and despite the fact the electorate doesn't seem particularly keen on the idea of prime minister Tony Abbott, at this stage it seems likely that a majority of Australians will vote Liberal in 2013.
It is also important for governments not to confuse policy with populism. Collectively, voters are smart, and they know when their vote is being bought. Populism is the mark of an incompetent government that has no legislative aims and mistakes handouts for policy, and voters are intelligent enough to recognise this.
The challenge for governments is to conform to voter expectations of competency. They need to move away from the 'having a policy to set up a working committee to think about policy' that characterised the Rudd approach to governance, instead actually articulating a defined set of legislative aims, and then enacting those aims with a minimum amount of fuss and blood loss. Because the electorate is now characterised by a consumerist approach to politics, and if they perceive a government as broken, just like a malfunctioning TV, they will throw it out.